In 2010, Sheryl Sandberg gave a TED talk, Why We Have Too Few Women Leaders.” She followed the talk with the 2015 publication of her book Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Although the book was meant to inspire women’s self-belief and encourage them to take “a seat at the table,” it received criticism from feminists and non-feminists alike. It seemed to some people that Sandberg was blaming women for their own failure to be recognized and promoted in the workplace; according to The Week, the book was disparaged as “victim-blaming.” Many women’s rights advocates were incensed that Sandberg called to action the very women who were overlooked rather than extending that call to her male colleagues and supervisors who did the overlooking.
But a closer read of the book and view of her TED talk reveals Sandberg’s underlying point: we cannot escape the context into which we have been born nor the influence of societal expectations in regard to gender. Even the most outspoken feminist has ingested and internalized subliminal messages that reinforce traditional gender roles and, with them, notions of male superiority. Consequently, Sandberg contends that women fail to advocate for themselves or take credit for their achievements in the workplace. She believes that awareness of ingrained attitudes will help women to self-promote with confidence, to lean in, and that every time they do, they move the needle forward ever so slightly.
It is interesting to note that, in both her book and talk, Sandberg admits that during the portion of her presentation for audience questions, she failed to call upon the women in the room who, one-by-one, gradually dropped their raised hands. If even she–a forward-thinking professional who was advocating the advancement of women–inadvertently selected the men, how might entrenched ideas about gender manifest in our everyday behaviors and those of our peers?
Given that in the year 2016 we are still plagued by gender inequities and find that culturally-embedded gender roles seep into our behaviors, we can only imagine how the deeply-rooted ideas of female inferiority during colonial times affected women’s self-perceptions. Elizabeth Schuyler was born into a world where colonial women could not even be considered second-class citizens; in actuality, they were not citizens in the true sense, having no legal identity. The female brain was considered too weak to absorb abstract thought; thus, education for women was limited to music and dancing lessons, sewing practice and, for those of the genteel classes, sessions with French tutors. Such education was considered practical, meant for the sole purpose of preparing a woman for courtship and marriage. And marriage was the goal of the coming-of-age colonial woman since unmarried women—spinsters or “thornbacks”–were stigmatized, rejected by society. Thus, most women married during their late teens or early twenties and had an average of seven to ten children. Eliza’s life followed the typical pattern: she married at age 23 and gave birth to eight children.
The emphasis on marriage derived from the basic belief that a woman’s sole purpose for being was to serve as a helpmate to man. Berkin writes that a woman’s “natural inclination was to obedience, fidelity, industriousness, and frugality and her natural function was bearing and nurturing children…Ministers sermonized it, educators elaborated it, lawmakers codified it, and poets versified it” (4). And although it was thought that reading novels would put wild ideas in the minds of women and academic study would “masculinize” women, books that enumerated proper female virtues were commonly passed on to colonial daughters. One such popular book, The Lady’s New Year’s Gift or Advice to a Daughter, spelled out appropriate behaviors for women in very specific terms and concerned such topics as religion, husbands, house, family and children. Women were advised to be pious above all, and to attend to their household duties faithfully or risk being an “incumbrance” [sic] to their husbands, as this excerpt from the text shows.
In another section of the book, we find instructions as to what a wife should do if her husband drinks too much. Essentially, the author suggests that women should be happy if their husbands drink because, as long as husbands have faults, they might not be as critical of their wives!
The woman’s domain was the household, where she produced goods for the use of the family– sewing, gardening, canning and cooking–or if a member of the genteel class, directing her servants and slaves within the household while decorating her home, serving as hostess, or honing her dancing and conversational skills for use when visitors came to call. There is substantial evidence that Elizabeth practiced sewing and knitting, becoming an accomplished seamstress. Below is a picture of the sewing box, now safely entrusted to the Schuyler Mansion Historic Site, given to her by Alexander Hamilton:
A copy of an ancient receipt in the Schuyler Mansion papers indicates that Eliza’s father, Phillip Schuyler, also paid tuition to William C. Hulett’s school of dance in New York for Peggy and Eliza’s dance lessons. Thus, it’s clear that Eliza’s family subscribed to the expectations of the time, providing for her the practical “education” that would ensure her marriageability, as well as her handiness in the household.
Related to a woman’s role as “helpmate” was the expectation that she be pious. As the mistress of the house, she was considered the moral role model in the family whose strong faith and religious observance should be an example to her children. Sexual purity was also an expectation for colonial women; however, when it came to men, a tendency toward premarital or extramarital sex was excusable, blamed on his “biology.” This belief system is an important foundational element of Elizabeth’s early life, as her devotion to her faith and her regular church attendance were evident throughout her life. Chernow writes that Eliza’s faithfulness was apparent even through her early nineties, as she still fell to her knees for daily prayers. Her strict adherence to moral principles for herself while extending a more lenient attitude toward her husband may also explain what, to modern society, may seem an almost unfathomable loyalty to her husband later in life.
Property ownership was a marker of status in colonial society. Sons acquired land from their fathers, while daughters’ possessions—land, slaves, household items—went from their father’s ownership to their husband’s property. This principle, derived from British common law, was known as coverture, and required that, once married, the colonial wife passed ownership of even the clothes on her back to her husband. “The married woman, ‘covered’ by her husband’s political identity, became politically invisible” (Kerber, 1980). She was in no better position than slaves and Native Americans: excluded from the political process, unworthy of consideration—or, as expressed by Zinn when considering the dearth of information on women’s accomplishments in accounts of colonial and revolutionary history, “The very invisibility of women, the overlooking of women, is a sign of their submerged status” (102).
It is difficult to imagine how colonial women managed to live under this cloud of oppression. However, there is every indication that Elizabeth Schuyler lived up to the ideals of the colonial woman. She was a dutiful child and a devoted member of her family, who remained especially close with her father and sisters throughout her life. And, as she matured, she manifested the values that were instilled in her: her life was grounded in religious faith and centered on care of her home and family. We cannot know for certain what was in her heart, as so few of her actual writings remain, but her loyalty to her husband is apparent and her unyielding faith gave her strength in the face of extraordinary misfortunes.
So Eliza, like most of her peers, did not speak up or rebel—not even so much as to suggest to her husband, as did Abigail Adams, that women should be recognized. Rather than say what should be done, she took action. In her reserved and respectful way, she put her energies into the causes that were most important to her. She fought against slavery. She housed and protected orphans. With incredible fortitude, she demonstrated that feminism is not simply a verbal expression of rebellion. Instead, feminism is action, action which moves the needle, even if that movement is ever so slight. Within the boundaries and social constructs of late the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, Eliza emerged as a quiet leader, humbly taking on causes closest to her heart and leaning in, venturing into endeavors that were new to women of her time.
In our next post, we’ll consider how growing up as a Schuyler contributed to the gracious and highly-respected woman Elizabeth Hamilton became.
On a personal note: It is ironic that I would be writing this blog today, the day the first female presidential candidate in our country’s history formally conceded the election. Emails and WikiLeaks, populism, the disenfranchised versus the elites, media bias, Comey letters, insults and name-calling, the Clinton Foundation, Access Hollywood, and faulty polling data—all of these factors contributed to a turbulent election season with an ending that baffled the most astute among us. Still, though our reasons for voting as we did are tied up in all of our beliefs and values, as well as our individual reactions to the circus of campaigning, I cannot help but wonder how much of the Hillary Clinton’s loss was connected to our latent notions around gender. We’ll never know. All we can do is remain vigilant and “never stop believing that fighting for what’s right is worth it.”—HRC, 11-9-16
Berkin, C. (2005). Revolutionary mothers: Women in the struggle for America’s independence.
New York: Random House.
Chernow, R. (2004). Alexander Hamilton. New York: Penguin.
Gerlach, D.R. (1987). Proud patriot: Philip Schuyler and the War of Independence, 1775-1783.
Syracuse: Syracuse University Press.
Kerber, L. (1980). Women of the republic: Intellect & ideology in revolutionary America.
Williamsburg: University of North Carolina Press.
Sandberg, S. (2015). Lean in: Women, work, and the will to lead. London: Random House.
Savile, G. (1688). The lady’s new-years gift, or advice to a daughter. London: Matt.Gillyflower.
Reprinted through EEBO Editions, ProQuest.
Schuyler Mansion Tour. (2016, October 6). Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site.
Albany, New York.
Taylor, A.(2016). American revolutions: A continental history, 1750-1804. New York: W.W.
Zinn, H. (1995). A people’s history of the United States 1492-present. New York: Harper Collins.